A video game intended to help people become less susceptible to misinformation just rewarded me for pretending to post a tweet from a fake NASA account warning of an incoming meteorite. The object of the new browser game, Bad News, is “to get as many followers as you can while slowly building up fake credibility as a news site,” according to its site.
The game was developed by Drog, a team of European journalists, media experts and academics, including researchers from Cambridge. Players are encouraged to spread misinformation by impersonating important figures and creating fake accounts based on official organizations. The more influence you gain in the absence of credibility, the more followers you get.
“In this game you take on the role of fake news-monger,” the game’s website states. “Drop all pretense of ethics and choose the path that builds your persona as an unscrupulous media magnate.”
My first run through Bad News didn’t last long, ending when I indicated I was ethically uncomfortable with duping people into thinking a space object was about to hit the West Coast. When I played the game with the intention of fooling my followers, I made it a lot farther. It quickly became a disturbing choose-your-own-adventure seen through the eyes of a deliberate hoaxer. The game gave me the option to discredit climate change, prey on people’s emotions, and then share a meme aligned with those goals.
The game even suggested that I buy Twitter bots in order to amplify a message exploiting people’s fear over a chemical spill. That earned me a Polarization badge since I was able to turn an isolated (and low-engagement) tweet into a Twitter scandal, and consequently divide the left and right.
“The idea is that once you’ve seen the tactics, and used them in the game, you build up resistance,” Sander van der Linden, director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, told The Guardian. “We want the public to learn what these people are doing by walking in their shoes.”
But it requires some mental gymnastics to understand how a game rewarding you for becoming an expert in spreading misinformation will help fight it. It certainly feels like a double-edged sword. While the stated purpose of Bad News is to help people identify fake news, the gameplay also serves as a blueprint for misguiding people online. The public could certainly be better at distinguishing fake news from credible sources, but a video game putting you in the shoes of a propagandist doesn’t seem to deliver on that promise.
“Professionals who want to create and spread fake news don’t need our game, they already know how to do it!” van der Linden told Gizmodo in an email. “Others with clear financial or political incentives tend to have pre-existing motives that our game doesn’t inspire so we are not very concerned about this. If the game helps educate millions of people it’s a small risk worth taking in my opinion.”
As far as how many people have played the game to date, van der Linden said that they don’t have an exact number, given that it just launched today, “but we expect quite a big number.”